Planning for Evil

February 26, 2006 § 39 Comments


The Human Act

Many people find the traditional Catholic moral formulation of object, intent, and circumstances, taken together with the principle of double-effect, to be confusing. We can’t do evil in order that good may come of it, but we can do things that have evil effects if they pass the double-effect test. (When the Church tells us that an act is intrinsically evil, she is saying that the act is evil because of the nature of its object: that nothing in the circumstances or intentions surrounding the act can make the act licit, no matter how good the outcome).

An act is evil if any of the evil which occurs as a result of it is part of our plans: if any of the putatively good things we are trying to accomplish are caused by some evil effect of our act in the chain of cause and effect. Only if there is nothing evil in that chain of cause and effect are we in a position to ask whether or not we have a proportionate reason for choosing to act (that is, for actually performing the act’s object despite knowing that the bad effect will occur). And specifically, we cannot ever justify anything in the chain of cause-and-effect between our act itself (the object) and our desired good effect (the intent) by appealing to a proportionate reason. Everything in green above is intended, whether we want to admit that it is intended or not.

A scenario raised in a comment was as follows: a politician represents a district that is predominantly pro-abortion. He votes in favor of a law that funds abortions in order to garner support from this constituency. Clearly, his act of voting is an evil act: not necessarily because its object (the actual vote) is evil in itself, although I suppose it may be, but because the funding of actual abortions and the abortions themselves are part of his plans: the outcome he wants is constituent support, and the abortions which are part of his plans are a cause of that constituent support. He may claim that he doesn’t intend for the abortions to occur, but that is a specious claim: if something occuring as a result of your act is a part of your plans, and your plans would be thwarted if it did not occur, then you intend it to occur. And you can’t justify evil by appealing to a proportionate reason when you intend the evil to occur.

Dropping a bomb on a military target when it results in (or has a high probability of) collateral damage is not necessarily evil (though it may still be evil depending on circumstances, other intentions, etc). Our plan is to destroy the military target, and the collateral damage is not a part of those plans: in fact we would very much prefer that the collateral damage not occur at all. If the collateral damage does not occur, that does not mean that our plans have been thwarted: quite the contrary.

I swiped what I understand of this from various discussions at Disputations and from Proportionalism and the Natural Law Tradition by Christopher Kaczor (HT to Kevin Miller for telling me about the book some time ago.) Any errors, misunderstandings, or nonsequiters are my own.

Intrinsic Confusion

February 23, 2006 § 8 Comments

There is a lot of confusion out there about what is meant by an “intrinsic evil”. More specifically, the claim is in the air that an act may ordinarily be torture but not actually be torture if the intended end of the act is to save innocent lives.

We know that this cannot be the case. In Veritatis Splendour, Pope John Paul II teaches authoritatively that torture is in the class of acts that the Church calls intrinsically evil acts. Now, as a general thing, the moral status of an act depends on its object, intent, and circumstances. If the object of the act is not evil in itself, then the act may be licit depending upon an evaluation of the intent and circumstances which, together with the object, make the act a human act subject to moral evaluation. Not so with intrinsically evil acts. An intrinsically evil act is evil because of the nature of its object. Intent and circumstances are completely irrelevant to the conclusion that the act is morally evil.

So suppose someone says “I know the Church says that act X is an intrinsically evil act, but I don’t have a good definition of act X. Therefore it is possible that act X might be morally licit under circumstance A, but not morally licit under circumstance B.” Does this make any sense when we are talking about acts which the Church has authoritatively taught to be intrinsically evil?

The short answer is that no, it does not make any sense. If we know that act X is intrinsically evil, then we know it is evil because of the nature of its object, and we know that no circumstance or intent can make it morally licit. We know that act X cannot be made licit by a change of circumstances or intent. We know this even if we don’t have a precise definition of act X: in fact, we know it even if we have no idea what act X is at all.

The notion of an intrinsically evil act that is defined as the kind of act it is by its intent or circumstances is self-contradictory. So if your operative definition of torture includes qualifiers based on intent or circumstances, qualifiers which make the act torture or not-torture based on intent or circumstances, you know for a fact that your operative definition of torture is wrong. So why not try mine on for size?

The Knights Contemplative

February 22, 2006 § Leave a comment

Flos Carmeli invents a new term (devotiophobia) and launches the next crusade, all in a single blog post.

Complete Dictatorship

February 22, 2006 § 2 Comments

Philokalia Republic is curious what specific flaw Kurt Godel saw in the US Constitution which made it possible, in Godel’s view, for the US to become a dictatorship. Any contradiction built into the Constitution would do the trick, because once you have contradictory premeses you can assert any outcome you want: hey presto, dictatorship!

My own pet speculation, Godel being Godel, is that he might have inferred a completeness claim about the text of the Constitution itself from Amendment X:

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.

If Godel was right, and there was a subtle-not-obvious contradiction in the Constitution, then what might we expect to see as a practical matter? Obviously there would be no immediate jump to dictatorship, and Godel himself didn’t seem to fear this or think it likely, despite his paranoid tendencies. The actual naked implications of a given text are always constrained in practice by common sense and tradition, and even though any end state is possible in principle when starting from a contradiction, tomorrow is usually pretty similar to today. So perhaps what we would expect to see is a history in which the legal regime seems perpetually at war with common sense and tradition, punctuated by a civil war or two over the boundaries of federal authority.

Maybe Godel wasn’t so paranoid after all.

Certain Termination

February 20, 2006 § 39 Comments

If you are going to launch a just war, a just war that would otherwise not occur if you didn’t launch it, then you’d better be right about the nature of the lasting, grave, and certain threat. That is what it means to be objectively certain.

Anyone who works for me who tells me he is certain about something life and death, and makes a decision based on that certainty, had better turn out to be right. If he turns out to be wrong, or if it isn’t crystal clear that he was right after the fact, then he’d better come to me with a pre-typed resignation letter and no excuses: no mass hysteria, no everyone else thought it was true too, no “I really was certain”, no excuses. “Everyone else” didn’t make the decision based on putative certainty. Bring me the resignation letter and just possibly I might not accept it. Fail to bring it to me of your own accord, without me prompting you, and don’t even bother coming to see me. You are fired.

Zippy’s Definition of Torture

February 18, 2006 § 18 Comments

(If you’ve gotten to this old post from Google or wherever, there is a much-updated discussion here).

When we intentionally cause intense suffering on the part of someone completely in our power, as the moral object of our act, it is an act of torture.

Torture is intrinsically evil, and is never licit under any circumstances whatsoever.

I know that many people think that we should be morally licensed to intentionally cause intense suffering in prisoners. They are wrong. Not only that, but the project to find loopholes, circumstances where causing intense suffering in prisoners as the moral object of our act is putatively licit, is itself a wicked project.

It is indeed possible to licitly do things which cause intense suffering, under double-effect reasoning, when the intense suffering is a foreseen but unintended effect of our action. But not as the moral object of our act.

The fear of a licitly condemned man is an example of unintended intense suffering. We would prefer that he make peace with his Maker and his victims, and go to his fate penitently without suffering at all. We do not intend his suffering. His suffering is not a means to any end of ours. His suffering is an unintended bad effect of carrying out a licit execution.

But if the intense suffering of a prisoner is itself the outcome we desire, or is a cause of the outcome that we desire, we are torturers. If the intense suffering is the means that we choose to accomplish some end, we are torturers.

Epistemology Lesson

February 13, 2006 § 40 Comments

The pull of the red curve is very strong, and it captures all of us at one time or another, me perhaps moreso than most. (Which is another way of saying that we all intellectually act like teenagers now and then, I guess. Though I should probably just speak for myself). I suppose the reason why is that reality doesn’t allow us to be God, not even in a carefully circumscribed particular area. To paraphrase the Disputations blog, God is not only the God of the gaps but the God of the non-gaps too. The whole premise of the gaps/non-gaps epistemology is that we do get to be God, at least in the places where the gaps putatively close. We may not get to be universally omniscient, but we can become omniscient little demi-Gods in particular areas of knowledge, or with respect to particular facts.

But that doesn’t cohere with reality. We are not God, and when we start thinking that we know all that there is to know about a particular thing we don’t become the God of that non-gap: we just become the Fool.

Where Am I?

You are currently viewing the archives for February, 2006 at Zippy Catholic.